Donegal Town sits at the estuary of the River Eske and the opening of Donegal Bay with a back drop of the Blue Stack Mountains. The name means ‘Fort of the Foreigners’, the foreigners being the Vikings who arrived in the 9th Century. At this stage there was no real town.
After the Vikings came the O’Donnells, who built Donegal Castle in 1474. It was regarded as one of the finest in Ireland. Nuala the wife of Red Hugh O’Donnell wanted to set up a community of Franciscans here so an abbey was built in 1474.
Called The Old Abbey, and now in ruins, it stands above the mouth of The River Eske where it runs into Donegal Bay. It has a very turbulent history having been ransacked, plundered and burned many times The adjoining grave yard has evidence of very early burials and many of the nobility of the time are also buried here. There are many lovely crosses marking some of the graves and the arches of the cloister are also very striking.
After a battle in 1601 in which the O’Donnells were involved, they were badly defeated. Red Hugh went to Spain to look for support but wasn’t successful and he and many other chiefs left Ireland. This was known as The Flight of the Earls.
This led to the Plantation of Ulster and the lands and castle of the O’Donnells at Donegal were given to an English man, Captain Basil Brooke who agreed to build a town at
The River Eske. The position was possibly to make use of the waterways for various transportation. He also repaired the castle which had been seriously damaged by Red Hugh, and added a wing which became the Manor House.
The 1966 Disney film ‘The Fighting Prince’ is based on the novel ‘The Fighting Prince of Donegal’ by Robert T Reilly.
Legend says that there is a tunnel running from the Castle to the Abbey but it has never been found.
Donegal Town is a typical Plantation town built around a triangle, called the Diamond, with roads leading off from each vertex.
Now it has a 20 feet high monument dedicated to the four Franciscan monks called The Four Masters, who wrote The Annals, a history of Gaelic Ireland from the earliest they could find till the Flight of the Earls as they didn’t want this part of history to disappear. These Annals are now housed in the National library in Dublin.
The town now has a small harbour and a great variety of shops, banks, cafes and hotels surround the Diamond. The Donegal Waterbus leaves from a near-by quay.
A Railway Heritage Centre gives insight into the history of the railway track which ran from Derry to Ballyshannon from 1863 to 1959.